Years ago, John Bolton and I would sit at a table together every morning, serving under Colin Powell – who was the Secretary of State – and serving George W. Bush. Times were, to borrow from the Chinese lexicon, “interesting.” Iraq and Afghanistan were hot, Kosovo and Korea sometimes. But here is the thing – honor mattered. I do not know where that John has gone.
In those days, Bolton was resolutely, but agreeably conservative. He had his strong views, which were chiefly centered on the Middle East, Far East, and how we approached spots like Afghanistan. Where our jobs overlapped, he as regional undersecretary, me as operational assistant secretary, we largely agreed. Never did we have a falling out, not that I ever recall.
Perhaps more interesting, Secretary Powell and John did not always agree, and yet whatever disagreements occurred got resolved, since mutual respect and honor mattered. John seemed able to disagree agreeably, stay within lines, honor his colleagues.
Powell was a seasoned leader, master of incisive thinking, quick – sometimes comic – wit, with an innate ability to humor the most humorless, bring people around, and stir a centering force that got the best out of most of us. He had learned at the elbow of a great, serving as National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan.
Unlike Bolton, Powell had a rare combination of searing combat experience in Vietnam and highest-level policy leadership in the US Government, having been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs 1989 to 1993, under George H.W. Bush. He knew war’s benefits, burdens, and incalculable costs – in life, limb, and money.
By contrast, John was an academic, surefooted in those areas he had studied well, resolute in his beliefs, able to illuminate what lay within his reach, but not particularly interested in being moved off the mark, a lighthouse on his rock, able to see and be seen, but not beyond where his beam went.
That may be the trouble now. Where honor was held high in Powell’s State Department, causing all to center themselves on that trait – measure themselves against that high objective, serving honorably, selflessly, effectively, not for self-promotion, personal advancement, or future profit – John’s present position is out on his own, no guardrails.
As one reads the self-promoting excerpts from his forthcoming book, listens to reports of how righteous John feels about short time as President Trump’s National Security Advisor, several disappointing waves wash over a former colleague.
First, the old John did not seem preoccupied with self-promotion, so much as policy promotion. The new John seems interested in becoming the next Jim Comey, selling books that sellout those with whom he closely served. That is a sad turn, for someone who was objectively a good policy thinker.
Second, the old John did not readily misinterpret good humor – even sardonic, simple, and off-putting humor – but understood that the political workplace produces frustrations, irritations, and overstatements far more often than understatements.
If one thinks Trump is mouthy, offensive, or too often irreverent or indignant, that Trump’s off-hand comments often give offense or invite it, listen to hours of private conversations with White House staff by either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Take your pick, as they both make Trump seem a schoolboy.
Since John knows that Trump is prone to look at things through the eyes of a New York businessman, that he is blunt and impolitic at times, but that he often aims to be funny, misinterpreting that humor as intentional, insidious or malicious seems unfair – and again, not like the John I knew.
Finally, what is most disappointing is that John – removed for substantive or personality differences by this President – quickly moved to profit from his post, one that was probably sought to avoid Senate confirmation, which he had a hard time securing for UN Ambassador.
Rather than doing as most privileged servants of the public do – either not writing a “kiss and tell” book, at least waiting until the sitting president leaves office, John has veered onto an odd, ignominious, and objectively low road. He has penned a “spit and tell” book, elevating himself, tearing down the president who hired and trusted him, plainly seeking to nobble the president’s reelection.
In short, the disappointment that washes over those who formerly thought of John Bolton as a strong-minded, sometimes staccato, but always respectful, policy-centered, honor-bound public servant is that he seems to have cast off his prior life, any prior sense that honor still matters.
What we have in the Bolton book seems the unsightly fall of a good man. What seems at work is the shrill voice of a disgruntled employee, offended for not being heard and heeded, ready to jettison much of what and who got him to where he landed, and politically ready to swap teams.
Honor does not act that way. It seldom produces a big payday, book contract, or fawning press, often no paycheck at all, no ride into the sunset, no interest in settling scores or rewriting errors as wins. Honor is quiet, not a bitter fruit. It is unhungry for more than contentment that one did what one could, while one could. That was the Bolton I used to sit with – years ago. I do not know where he went.